Fresh Start On Conflict, But Wariness Too


Supporters of Israel who describe President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry as anti-Israel, even anti-Semitic, sharply diminish their credibility in discussions about the Mideast conflict. Anyone who heard Kerry’s lengthy explanation of why the U.S. abstained on the United Nations Security Council vote on Israeli settlements could see that he was sincere in talking about his warm personal feelings about Israel and his concern that Jerusalem is moving away from the possibility of a two-state solution. He and many others, including a significant percentage of Israelis, believe that increased settlement activity will enrage Palestinians, further isolate Israel diplomatically and force the country to choose between being a Jewish state and a democratic one.

Agree with Kerry or not, but his belief that the Jewish state is jeopardizing its long-term security by maintaining control over the lives of a large and increasingly hostile Palestinian population is real and should not be dismissed as anti-Israel sentiment.

President Obama, too, has spoken often of his deep commitment to protect the security of Israel, underscored, for example, by the joint partnership on the Iron Dome, which gave Israel a vital edge in its combat with Hamas, and the record $38 billion defense package recently signed between the U.S. and Israel. Anti-Semites and haters of Israel don’t act that way.

American officials are entitled to express differing points of view on how best to deal with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict without being called enemies of Jerusalem. The proper response is to make Israel’s case, not marginalize or even demonize those with whom we disagree. Call the president and secretary of state out on policy, but don’t call them names.

We, too, were deeply disappointed, though not surprised, with the Obama administration’s abstention at the UN, as noted here in detail last week (“The Stain Of Abstaining”). The non-veto of a badly biased resolution was the culmination of eight years of the president misreading the crux of the Israel-Palestinian conflict, emphasizing the settlement issue rather than the fact that the Palestinians are not prepared to recognize Israel as a reality, a Jewish state in the region. For two decades the Palestinian Authority has rejected proposal after proposal from successive Israeli governments, left and right, without offering a meaningful counteroffer. The PA has praised, if not encouraged or even orchestrated, those who commit horrific terrorist attacks on Israeli citizens.

Israel has learned the hard way that withdrawing from disputed land does not bring peace. On the contrary, when the IDF withdrew unilaterally from Lebanon in 2000, Hezbollah became a greater threat, emboldened to launch a war. When Israel withdrew unilaterally from Gaza in 2005, Hamas became a greater threat, emboldened to launch a war. And the terror attacks have never stopped.

The fact that despite such behavior the onus is placed on Israel for lack of progress on the peace front is beyond infuriating; it makes it more difficult for Israeli leaders to justify new rounds of negotiations.

Those on the right, in Israel and America, argue that the Oslo agreement was a tragic mistake, and that land-for-peace and the goals of a two-state solution are fantasies, not based in reality. They offer decades of diplomatic failure to prove their point. It’s important that opponents not brand them racists and extremists for seeking to assure a sense of security for themselves, their families and their country.

But they need to explain what would happen if their vision is realized and the West Bank is annexed, with Israel in control of the lives of millions more embittered, angry Palestinians. Distinguishing between that reality and The “A” Word — apartheid — would be difficult, and international isolation of Israel would be complete.

We don’t have the answers. To date, no one does. Those who see simple solutions, left or right, are being simplistic. Mideast life is complex, with overlays of dependence. The Palestinian Authority needs Israel to protect it from Hamas, which would swoop in and subsume the PA if not for the IDF. Israel needs the PA to protect it from the burden of taking over full responsibility for the Palestinian inhabitants of the West Bank.

After a frustrating year spent trying to bring Jerusalem and Ramallah to the negotiating table in 2014, John Kerry should know better than anyone that achieving peace through a single, major initiative can’t happen. It’s been tried and failed before, from Camp David to Annapolis to the secretary of state’s own effort. You can’t convince two deeply distrustful parties to agree on all major issues, including borders, right of return, security, end of violence and Jerusalem — especially when only one party is asked to make deep and tangible sacrifices.

The Trump administration is preparing to take a new tack, refreshingly open and supportive of Israel but challenging in its defiantly hawkish stance. History has shown that it would be helpful to approach Mideast affairs with a sense of humility. We believe providing opportunities for incremental steps from both sides is the most logical alternative to a grand attempt at a final peace deal. It’s a way to build some semblance of trust, with tangible benefits along the path toward progress.